Superstar Wars: Man versus Machines

“Enthiran” may not satisfy science fiction fans and movie geeks wholly but there's no denying that it is India's best attempt at crafting a sci-fi spectacle

October 13, 2010 05:36 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 05:19 am IST

Twenty years later, the robotic avatar of Superstar is dismantled and kept in a museum. When a school kid on excursion wants to know why, the robot answers: Naan sinthikka arambichitten (“I started thinking.”)

We can say the same for the changing mindset of the increasingly discerning audience.

And Shankar is smart enough to realise that and he gives us back the Rajinikanth of yore, the guy who wasn't scared to play the man who runs away from a fight or even the villain — Rajinikanth, the actor — in India's best attempt ever in crafting a legitimate sci-fi action spectacle.

What makes the task of an Indian sci-fi filmmaker doubly difficult is that unlike Hollywood films that stick to a specialised genre with focus, people here expect a wholesome blend of various genres — romance, comedy, thriller, musical, action, adventure, in addition to science fiction — all in one movie. Now, imagine the expectations if this also needs to be a Rajinikanth film.

Obviously, sci-fi fans are not wholly satisfied.

“In terms of special effects, it was a giant leap for Indian cinema. We haven't seen special effects like this in our films... certainly not like the last 20 minutes in ‘Enthiran',” swears Sandeep Makam, a movie geek who also runs an ad agency. “The flip side is that it is predictable science fiction. When you watch ‘Star Wars' or ‘The Matrix', you don't see what's coming.”

While Hollywood films keep their focus on the sci-fi narrative, Shankar has taken a sci-fi plot, moulded it within the trappings of his already complex mixed masala genre. The end product is a fascinating blend — “Enthiran” is simultaneously a superhero film, a sci-fi adventure, a triangular love story with a hint of the Ramayana (the villain even compares the abducted heroine Sana to Sita) and the message Shankar is known to churn out.

Movie buff Naveen Varadarajan, a budding cinematographer who recently trained for 3D in Hollywood, blown by the visual effects is willing to ignore the predictability. “You may be able to find faults with the script but not the visual effects. The effects in ‘Enthiran' are not like a Hollywood film, they are as good as Hollywood does them,” says Naveen.

That is true. At no point does the film look like a cheap imitation. Either Shankar or the late Sujatha or probably the art director Sabu Cyril must be a “Star Wars” fan to begin the movie with a very similar visual for an opening scene. Two robots — a tall one and a short fat one, called C3PO and R2D2 respectively — in a passage way. But the similarity ends there, the robots are running for cover in “A New Hope” while in “Enthiran”, they are bringing flowers to the scientist busy giving the final touches to his obsession. Probably as a tongue-in-cheek tribute, scientist Vaseegaran calls one R2. Later in the course of ‘Arima Arima,' Superstar wields a light-saber.

The film is replete with touches and influences from many sci-fi films.

As Vijay Venkataramanan, a film editor and post-production specialist, observes, “In the 1930s, ‘Frankenstein' got together with ‘King Kong' and had a baby. Many years later, that baby got together with ‘The Terminator' and made another baby. A decade later this baby got together with ‘Bicentennial Man' and had yet another baby called ‘Enthiran'. The lineage is not to be taken lightly!”

“The Terminator” reference is more than obvious. Not just visually — where we see the Superstar with one human eye and one scarred metallic eye but also intentionally spelt out when the bad robot announces that he has created Terminators.

Given the geek community's exposure to Hollywood's big budget sci-fi entertainers, technology-savvy movie buffs such as social media guru Kiruba had very low expectations. “Honestly when I first heard about ‘Enthiran', I expected a hotch-potch, low-grade work. After all, I hadn't seen any Tamil movie with effects that came close to Hollywood. ‘Enthiran' completely and totally beat my expectations,” admits Kiruba.

A lot of this has to do with Shankar's narrative structure that first educates the audience about the genre (see box) by showcasing the potential of robotic technology in its robot-as-superhero first act before going on to show us its destructive application that could wreck havoc on our lives — the form only substantiating the content.

The robot-as-human-in-love second act is where the screenplay sacrifices its sci-fi core, loses focus and gets into escapist fantasy mode. Despite going all out to make the source of the robot's superpower plausible (electro-magnetic energy), Shankar packs up all that tightly-reined-in logic for a silly comedy scene that reduces Rajinikanth to a silly Chuck Norris joke.

But thankfully, the robot-as-super villain third act of “Enthiran” more than makes up for the lost time unleashing multiple Rajinikanths (like Agent Smith clones in “The Matrix” sequels) and makes you root for the robot Chitti Version 2 whose overpowering style and flamboyant presence prove no match for the hero.

That's probably the message of the film — that man may never be able to beat the machine if Artificial Intelligence is equipped with the ability to think and want.

But this is not the Rajinikanth we are used to seeing — he gets flung on to the top of the chandelier, gets busted by the villain after infiltrating his den, and it's just a de-magnetise command that helps him save the day. The world saving act in a Rajinikanth film turns out to be a simple geeky gesture!

And that's the part we need to embrace with mixed feelings. “Enthiran” isn't the conventional Superstar film.

Superstar has dismantled his image. For we have started thinking.

(This story has been corrected for an error).

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